Heather Derr-Smith’s fourth collection (Persea Books) is a rollicking journey through the apocalyptic terrain of violence and desire. Here, the (personal and historical) past is never dead, its brutality instead only preamble, giving context and meaning to the violence unfolding in the present. This book’s preoccupations are elemental—the threat inherent to navigating the world in a female body; the near impossibility of separating violence from sex within patriarchy; and the paradox of discovering something like self-expression—even power—in wielding female sexuality.
The family is the first site of both physical and sexual violence: “Like a ouija board, I keep turning back up / in the place where it all began” (“I-95”). Here, the speaker learns that men are “made for coming like a second coming” and women are “made for taking it” (“Hide Out”). This perspective frames all the violence to come, since “The past is connected to the present like a man’s arm to his shoulder” (“Glass Jaw”). This is also the site of the first flickers of resilience—“In the end, they had all been frightened of her, how she rose from the blows, like the ring of a bell, unbreakable” (“Stitch”). The speaker’s drive for survival—for self-determination—is what ultimately propels her from the violent world of the family into a larger, equally violent one: “I sang the whole way north and every song was a psalm to you . . . the you that sprang from my guts every time I was hit or kicked, / green bruises like leaves in the boughs” (“I-95”).
The speaker subsequently struggles to find connection outside the language of violence—the only closeness that’s been allowed—while hamstrung by a society that casts women as prey and men as predators, leaving women to ask, in “Eat,” “What makes us love what crushes us?” Ultimately, the collection illustrates two possible paths of approaching wholeness: the first is softness, of refusing to collude with the world’s estimation of you as a hard, dangerous thing, even when it offers nothing but hardness and danger in return. One of the collection’s most affecting poems, “Mercy Seat,” speaks to this directly:
I was raped, just a few years ago. He entered through the doorway,
pushed me into the room. I comforted him, spoke
to him like a mother to her son.
And that’s the crux. Sometimes a stranger rips you apart
calls you a bitch and a cunt and you say to him—
Do you know what you say? You say: It’s going to be OK.
Everything is going to be all right.
This might seem a paradoxical reaction to sexual violence, but there’s something beautiful in how it offers grace to her attacker, and even more so, to herself.
The second path is pleasure—obscuring the story of violence by making new, purposeful marks on the skin’s palimpsest. This allows the body, formerly the nexus of suffering, to become instead one of revelation, watching “The cunnilingual softness of night closing in, head thrown back” (“I-95”). It also imbues the body with intrinsic power, rather than the power conferred on it by an approving male gaze: “The girl was phantasmagorical, huge, oracle. / No common thing, not yours, not belonging to you” (“XXX”). Now enlarged and emboldened, the speaker is able to resurrect the parts of herself the blows of childhood chipped off and integrate them into the adult self, instructing her lover—but also herself—to “Go back to Virginia. / Go down by the river, where the boys of summer / undo their belts. I’ll be waiting there for you” (“Eat”).
Thrust asserts the necessity of both softness and pleasure as ways to return to a delight in ourselves and the world around us, even in all of its darkness, as Derr-Smith exhorts in “Zugenruhe,” “Reclaim the body, its pain / even, ours to thrill and tremble.” In fact, this is what makes it possible to bear that darkness, to glance down in wonder at “a colony of leeches beneath the rocks, blood still pooled in their delicate cups” (“The Virginia Museum of the Confederacy”).